1 John 4:1-6 | Test the Spirits
1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
We live in a spiritual world. But the supernatural is not always divine.
Last Sunday night, in the middle of a concert, a man unable to discern the error of the spirit he followed fired guns into a crowd on the Las Vegas strip, killing 58 and injuring over 500 people. He followed a false prophet, and the results were disastrous.
In 1838, a man named Joseph Smith claimed to find tablets in a cave. But he couldn’t read them. He claimed and angel gave him special glasses to understand the foreign language, which, according to his Book of Mormon, is the true story of God’s work. He believed the Bible was corrupt and insufficient—a popular message still today. He placed himself above the Scriptures, literally re-writing the Bible. Today, nearly 15 million people follow his errors.
In this passage, John tells us “do not believe every spirit" because some spirits are liars. Some manifest in semi-automatic weapons; others in a smiling man in a white shirt and tie on a bicycle. Every false spirit leads to death, either in the pull of a trigger or the slow decay of bad doctrine. Do not believe every spirit.
But this passage is not only about not believing false spirits. It’s also about believing the true Spirit.
The true Spirit is God, the Holy Spirit—the third person of the Trinity. Equal to the Father and Son in power and glory but sent from them to indwell God’s people, regenerating hearts and granting the new birth. He inspired the writing of the Bible.
Here’s how good the Holy Spirit is. Before Jesus died, he told his disciples he was leaving them. He then comforted them saying it was to their benefit that he goes so that he might send the Comforter—the Holy Spirit. He’s our guide who speaks to us the things of God through the scriptures. He glorifies Jesus by taking what is his and declaring it to us. He’s so good, Jesus said it was better for him to leave so the Spirit could come! God is with his people now in the person of the Holy Spirit.
In the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, then, John writes to tell us there is such thing as truth and error, and that we can tell the difference. Christians know this to be true. But decades ago, the post-modern worldview crashed into America, claiming truth as relative. If it’s true for you, then it’s true. Everyone define their own truth. But eventually, that philosophy breaks down. Now we live in the age of what some call post-truth. Truth doesn’t matter. Feelings matter. We see this in today’s rhetoric—just look at Facebook. Emotions rule. And that kind of world is, perhaps, more dangerous for the promulgation of false spirits than John's day. Whatever makes us feel good becomes truth. But listen: if you just follow your feelings, you will believe every spirit that sounds good, even if it isn’t biblical. False spirits don’t care about your heart, but they will use your heart against Christ. They’ll lead you along, making you feel right as Christ is denied.
But Jesus doesn’t treat us that way. He doesn’t trick us into error; he sends us the Spirit of truth. And in this passage, John is showing us what that means. Every age has its own false spirits. But in every age, the Holy Spirit is there, giving discernment to his people and prevailing over the false spirits.
So, let’s consider three things. First, we must not believe every spirit. Second, we must test the spirits. Third, we must prevail over the false spirits.
We Must Not Believe Every Spirit
There is a spirit behind every religious message. John tells us it’s either from God or from the Antichrist. What should we believe? Such an important question, isn’t it? What we believe forms what we worship, and what we worship forms who we become. So, John tells us not to believe every spirit.
But so many sound so good. For example, “Every religion is a valid path to God.”
We’re tempted to believe this because then we don’t have to preach about the need to come to Christ. We see people as generally good people, doing their best, so our mouth stays shut, thinking they’ll be fine in the end. But to keep our mouths shut and watch people follow a false spirit is to watch them die without Christ. It is like refusing oxygen to a diver in the depths of the sea or denying medicine to a sick child. No one is fine without Christ. He’s the only Savior.
Another example, the prosperity gospel: “God wants his children to be healthy, wealthy, and happy.”
We’re tempted to believe this because isn’t a life of prosperity is what we all want? My guess is most in this room deny the prosperity gospel as right doctrine, but do we functionally live as if it’s true? In other words, are you saying God is not some magical ATM dispensing healthy hearts, large paychecks, and buckets of smiles, yet living as if he does? When things go wrong, do you grow anxious, frustrated, angry, accusing God of not being good?
I think we are tempted to believe at least a version of the prosperity gospel more than we realize, especially here in Franklin, TN. I’m speaking broadly here, and also to myself, but too often, we want what we want, not what God wants. So we spend our money on material things in hope of attaining the good life, all the while the things of God are given the standard monthly fee. But that’s a dangerous message to follow.
It’s not that God doesn’t want good things for us; he certainly does. The Bible says, “It’s your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” But what God defines as good is himself. Everything else just gets in the way.
Many eat false spirits like candy. They sound good. But we must be careful. Jesus warned us in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” We must always compare the version of the good life the false spirits offer with the glorious life Jesus offers. The candy coating makes it go down easy, but it’s poison inside.
Are you believing any false spirits today? What are you building your life on? Can you find it in the Bible? Do not believe every spirit.
So, secondly, we must test the spirits. How do we do it?
We Must Test the Spirits
The Scottish pastor, Eric Alexander said, “The only way I know to cultivate a spirit of discernment and true wisdom in being able to tell the difference between truth and error…is a concentrated commitment to the study of Scripture.” He’s right. If we are to begin discerning between true and false spirits, we must ground ourselves in the Bible, because it’s the source of all truth, the supreme authority in all spiritual matters, containing everything necessary for salvation and spiritual life.
To test the spirits, John points to God’s word through his prophets and apostles in the Bible. Look at verse 6, “We are from God [the apostles are from God]. Whoever knows God listens to us.” But “Whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.”
So, discernment begins with the Bible. We test the spirits by reading the Scriptures in the power of the Holy Spirit with diligence and prayer so that it may be stored in our hearts and practiced in our lives. By the Bible, we discern the genuineness of every spirit. As John MacArthur said, “Federal agents don’t learn to spot counterfeit money by studying the counterfeits. They study genuine bills until they master the look of the real thing. Then when they see the bogus money they recognize it.” That’s why we teach and preach the Bible here at Refuge. We want to equip you to discern truth from error. The more familiar you are with truth, the more you recognize error.
So, quick side bar: how do we know the Bible is true? Well, how do we know anything is true? We test it, don’t we? That’s what John is telling us to do with the false spirits, because he’s writing to Christians. But if you’re here and wondering why we believe the Bible to be true, let me challenge you to test it. Don’t say you will, but actually do it. Test it against other historical records, archeology, and science. Test it for rationality. Does it make sense logically? Is it coherent? What do the older passages say about future passages? One thing remarkable about the Bible is its prediction of future events. Finally, if you really want to know, ask God to help you believe. You’re going to believe something. We all do. So why not try to believe the Bible? After all, God is a person who gave us this book. It’s not the book who proves itself as much as God who proves the book. He can prove himself to you too. End of side bar.
Now, how do we test the spirits? Ask where they lead. What do they say about Jesus? Do they take you further into him or further from him? Answer this carefully because, as Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your god.”
The Holy Spirit confesses the truth of Jesus Christ. The false spirits don’t. The object of the message makes the difference.
Look at verse 2, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” Now, look at verse 3, the false message, “and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard was coming and now is in the world already.” So, there is the Spirit of God and there is the spirit of the antichrist. The Spirit of God is the Holy Spirit. The spirit of the antichrist is reference to the person in whom the denial of Jesus reaches its ultimate expression. There is one yet to come to fulfill that, but the spirit is here today in all false doctrine. The Holy Spirit confesses Jesus. The spirit of the antichrist does not.
Now, what does it mean to confess Christ? In Greek, the word confess means “to say the same thing as.” It’s not a mere acknowledgment, like a head nod when someone speaks. It’s repeating after God the same words with the same conviction.
False spirits don’t do that. In Mark’s gospel when Jesus entered a Synagogue, a man with a demon cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” He seems to confess Jesus, doesn’t he? He recognizes him as the Holy One of God. But he also seems mad at Jesus, “What have you to do with us? Have you come to destroy us?” The tone is one of animosity. This is not the kind of confession of Jesus John refers to as true confession. The demon knew who Jesus was but that did not mean he would worship him. Unless the confession is accompanied by heartfelt reverence and submission to Christ, it’s just words.
So that’s false confession. What is true confession?
After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his apostles. But Thomas, wasn’t there, and upon hearing what happened, he doubts. After all, who can rise from the dead? “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, Jesus comes again to his disciples, this time with Thomas present. Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Thomas sees Jesus and confesses him as the Savior, as his Lord and God. The false spirits don’t confess that truth. They nod their head in recognition of Jesus but they don’t worship him.
The false spirits’ messages take many forms. In John’s day, some said Jesus wasn’t really human; he just seemed to be human. But you cannot strip away the humanity of Jesus and still have Jesus. He could not have saved us if he wasn’t the God-Man. If he wasn’t truly human, he didn’t truly obey God’s law on our behalf. He wasn’t truly beset with our weakness of flesh. He was a pretender, forging his way through this world. But also, if Jesus wasn’t human, the crucifixion was fake. His suffering wasn’t real. It just seemed real. So, he can’t really help us in our suffering. He can’t sympathize with us because he doesn’t know what it’s like to be really tempted, to really cry, to really bleed. Furthermore, we don’t have a real resurrection. And if the resurrection isn’t real, then, in the words of the apostle Paul, “Your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”
But the Bible says Jesus was a real man. He became like us in every respect to obey God’s law perfeclty and to pay the penalty of sin for his people. He experienced the same things we experience, who thirsted and hungered and got tired, who slept and bled and died, who felt betrayal and loneliness and oppression, who got blisters on his feet and splinters in his hands and sweat in his eyes, who wondered about his future and thought about his past and lived in the limitations of the present, who obeyed God and followed God and became our substitute…if that Jesus is the real Jesus, then the author of Hebrews is right: we do have a sympathetic high priest, who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. We can confidently approach the throne of grace in our time of need…because Jesus understands what it’s like to be in need!
Do you see? The Holy God, who is in the heavens and does whatever he pleases, chose to enter our world, take on flesh, live our life so that he could experience everything we experience except sin, to die and rise from death to save us. Every spirit should run through the Jesus test. What do the spirits say about Jesus?!
We should ask two questions of every message:
1) If I believe this, what confession about Christ is entering my heart?
2) If I believe this, what confession about Christ will come out of my mouth?
The false spirits are trying to put their false message into your heart so that their lies will come out of your mouth. But we must test them. We must prevail over the false spirits, which is my third point.
We Must Prevail Over the False Spirits
We must prevail over the false spirits, but John isn’t saying we must do that in our own strength. Look at verse 4. “Little children, you are from God and have overcome them [false spirits], for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
Notice the tender words, “little children.” God is not asking us to prevail over false spirits on our own. He knows we can’t! We are not super men and women. We are little children, in need of our Father to take our hand and walk us in the right direction. So, as a good Father, God grants what we need. He gives himself to us, giving us the capacity to believe truth and deny error, constantly adjusting our heart to its proper orientation. Not believing the false spirits and believing the true Spirit is a matter of a changed heart. It’s not purely intellectual, though there is reasoning involved. It’s actually more about who we know than what we know. It’s the difference between knowing the character of a person and knowing facts about a person. It’s the difference between knowing your spouse and knowing someone else’s spouse. We can know doctrine, but unless the Lord has changed our heart, granting repentance and belief, we could confess Jesus and still follow false spirits. It comes down to affection before it comes down to intellect. Our hearts are stronger than our minds. That’s why God renews our minds but first recreates our heart. We don’t learn our way into God. We love our way into God. More precisely, God loves us into himself, and we respond to his love with love. We’re captivated by him, born again into him. We are no longer our own. We have been bought with a price. We belong to God now. And he was victorious over the false spirits in the cross and resurrection. Do you think, after all that, he’s going to give you up to false spirits?
Believers don’t lose the war with the false spirits because the God cannot lose any war. But on the cross 2,000 years ago, he did choose to lose one battle, because it was the only way to win our salvation. Jesus received what we deserved. Three days later, the Holy Spirit raised his lifeless body. The same Spirit who, as Paul says in Romans 8:11, now lives inside of every Christian. If that’s true, you need not fear any false spirit. God will protect you.
In the Old Testament book of 2 Kings, the king of Syria waged war on Israel. God sent word to Israel of the location of the Syrian army through his prophet Elisha. Embarrassed, the king of Syria was convinced one of his men was a traitor. How else could Israel have known where they were? But all his men denied it. Instead, they pointed to Elisha, Israel’s man of God, who seemed to know everything they discussed in private. So he sent his army to Elisha’s house.
The next morning, Elisha’s servant awoke to an angry Syrian army all around. Frightened, he ran to Elisha, “What shall we do?” Elisha said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” But the servant didn’t understand, what he saw with his eyes didn’t match what Elisha just said. Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around. God’s angelic army had been there all along.
What Elisha’s servant couldn’t see is what John is illuminating for us now—God’s strength is greater than his enemy’s. And we today have something greater than God’s angelic army. We have God himself in the person of the Holy Spirit living within. We must prevail over the false spirits, and we will, praise be to God! It doesn’t matter what false spirits are circling your house because, if you’re a Christian, you have the Spirit of truth living deep inside, and he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. You’re not alone. You never have been. God is with you now and until the end of the age.